Wizards Notebook

Healthy Howard rises to Wizards' defense

"There is no coincidence that our defense has gotten better with the addition of Josh Howard," Coach Flip Saunders said of the forward. (Jonathan Newton)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ten months to the day that he caught an outlet pass in the lane, pushed off his left leg to attempt a layup, grimaced and dropped gawkily to the floor, Josh Howard was back on the same court, facing the same team.

But Howard said that at no point Wednesday did he reflect on that ill-fated night against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 22, when he suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament and had to watch the Washington Wizards founder as he was forced into a lengthy rehabilitation. "It wasn't a thought," Howard said. "Just thinking about a win."

Howard didn't get a win, as the Wizards lost, 87-80, at Verizon Center. But the former all-star forward showed once again that the Wizards are a much more competitive and competent team, especially on the defensive end, with him on the floor. The Wizards (7-20) are just 1-2 since Howard made his debut, but those two losses have come against Miami and Chicago - two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference - and they were in position to win both games.

Since Howard joined the Wizards in a trade deadline deal with Dallas last February, they are 4-3 with him and a whopping 12-40 without him. The Wizards have lost those three games by a combined 13 points.

"It's a good stat for my confidence," Howard said with a smile and shrug. "If I can find a way to rub off on my team, I will. I'm going to continue to play the way I've been playing, lead by example."

Howard has been used as a reserve in his first three games, contributing 10.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 22.3 minutes per game.

"Eventually, I would like to start, but if that's not in the plans, I'm going to keep doing the things I can do," said Howard, who signed a one-year, incentive-laden contract last summer that could be worth close to $4 million. "Right now, it's me getting healthy first and helping my team second. Either way, it's just being out there for my team. The minutes that I'm getting and I'm giving the team is right. If I'm able to give my team more minutes, hopefully the points will come up."

Howard said he is still regaining the confidence to finish at the basket as he once did, but he remains aggressive on the defensive end. In Howard's three games, the Wizards are playing better overall defense, holding Miami, Charlotte and Chicago to an average of 85.3 points and 43.4 percent shooting (90 for 207) while forcing 22.3 turnovers. On the year, the Wizards are giving up 103.6 points, 47.4 percent shooting and forcing just 16.9 turnovers.

"There is no coincidence that our defense has gotten better with the addition of Josh Howard. Josh has added so much defensively, in the things that he can do," Coach Flip Saunders said. "Even though he is only playing 20 minutes, his leadership and just his ability to lock down defensively on people and know that guy is not going to go at us that much is huge for us."

Howard has recorded one steal in each game. He helped harass Chicago's Luol Deng into a poor shooting night but also made a subtle difference, such as when he jumped out for a surprise double-team on Carlos Boozer, forcing him to miss a rare jumper.

"I've always had a good feeling about playing defense," said Howard, who missed the playoffs for the first time in his career last season. He said he is trying to bring "a winning attitude, number one, and also letting those guys know you can make mistakes just as long as you can come back and correct those mistakes. I think we're picking up on that. It's a learning process."

After finally finishing a game against the Bulls while wearing a Wizards uniform, Howard was able to smile about surviving, and how far he has come.

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